Lal and Mike Waterson – Bright Phoebus

Album Review | Domino | Review by Steve Henderson | Stars: 5/5

Up on Yorkshire’s east coast, the folk family that started with Watersons and developed into Carthys with the arrival of Martin has been central to the English folk music scene of recent years.  Scourers of secondhand music will tell you that Bright Phoebus by Lal and Mike Waterson has been one of the most sought after folk recordings of yesteryear.  To be precise, 1972.  Now, Domino Records has stepped into the fray to make the album available in a remastered form guided by David Suff and Lal’s daughter, Marry Waterson.  It can be found in CD and vinyl formats as well as standard and deluxe versions where the latter includes a set of demos from the album.  So, what is all the fuss about?  To some extent, it’s the mystery built up around these recordings. Think that, so far, The Watersons as a group had been known for their interpretation of folk songs from the country’s rich tradition.  So, it was something of a surprise to find that Lal had been writing her own songs along with brother, Mike.  Having played these to Martin Carthy, a swell of interest was carried through the folk scene of the time.  Queuing at the door to get on board with the recording were such as Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, Dave Mattacks and Maddy Prior alongside family members Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy.  These non-family musicians were known for their folk rock style, like that of the members of Fairport Convention who drew from both sides of the Atlantic to create their sound.  However, Bright Phoebus is a record full of characters and a range of different styles that means some have suggested that this is folk music’s Sgt Pepper moment.  A comparison that is even harder to ignore when you hear the similar opening track jollity of “Rubber Band”.  Like The Beatles’ masterpiece, the tracks stand alone as individual pieces where listeners will have quite different favourites.  Whether you go for those which sound like unbridled folk pieces such as the Lal Waterson and Bob Davenport on “Child Among The Weeds” or the music hall feel of “Magical Man” with its further echoes of Sgt Pepper.  “Danny Rose” has an American beat to it with a dash of skiffle in the mix whilst “Shady Lady” has a Waterson chorus layered over what could have been a Fairport Convention track – hardly surprising given the presence of Thompson, Hutchings and Mattacks.  “Red Wine and Promises” is a personal favourite with Norma Waterson telling the tale over Martin Carthy’s guitar work of a drunken night ending with her no nonsense lyric “I don’t need no bugger’s arms around me”.  A feeling that many will recognise.  Mind you, talking of favourites, who could resist a singalong to the title track’s chorus too?  In 1972, the record was not well received by the followers of The Watersons who were mystified by its changes in style and a lack of traditional material.  Sadly, some suggest that Mike Waterson was so upset by this that he never sang his own contributions again.  It’s true to say that its wide variance in styles means that listeners could find that some tracks may not sit with their own individual taste.  However, there is plenty that will catch the ear and, today, we can all explore this landmark record and pick out personal favourites.